One of the most popular reasons why people decide to get chickens is for having their own fresh eggs. I thought I’d spend some time discussing the particulars of raising poultry for eggs, something that I’ve been doing since childhood.
One of the first things to realize is that not all chickens are good egg-layers. Some breeds are only for raising for meat production and really won’t lay eggs. Other rarer breeds are only raised for ornamental reasons or as pets as they lay very few eggs.
But there are breeds of chickens that are bred and raised for egg laying. Many heirloom or heritage breeds will lay eggs and get large enough to be used for meat. These are called ‘dual purpose’ breeds. Other breeds of heritage chickens tend to stay pretty slim but lay tons of eggs, so they’d be classified as primarily egg layers. Leghorns would be a good example of this type of chicken.
Then you have hybrid super-layers. These chickens are intense and lay lots and lots of eggs. These hybrids would be the ones used by commercial operations. Examples of these hybrids would include ISA Browns, Cinnamon Queens, Golden Buffs and Golden Comets.
So if you want to raise chickens for eggs, your first choice would be deciding on a breed. You’ll have to decide if you want a chicken that will only produce eggs, or that would produce eggs and meat. And then how many eggs you want. A highly productive chicken could lay over 250 eggs per year in its prime. One thing to note is that the longevity of a chicken is affected by egg laying. The high production breeds lay fast for short amount of time and have short lifespans. Heritage breeds lay fewer eggs per year, but lay for a longer period of time and could live 9-12 years or even more (although they probably won’t lay any eggs after 5 or 6 years of age.).
Other breed considerations would be what color eggs do you want out of your flock? Egg shell color is determined by breed as well. Some breeds lay white eggs, some brown, and some chickens, like Americauanas or Easter Eggers can lay green, blue, or pink colored eggs.
You might consider size as well – standard breed chickens lay normal sized eggs like the ones you’d find in the grocery store. Younger hens tend to lay medium-eggs, and as they get older, hens lay larger and larger eggs. There are also bantam chickens, which lay much smaller eggs. They are a fun addition to the household egg basket!
After deciding on a breed, the next consideration is how to raise your flock so it is healthy and happy and produces quality eggs for you. Your chickens will need a safe coop that can be completely locked up at night to protect your hens from predators. The coop should also protect them from the elements. Having an outside area that is fenced in so your chickens can be out in the air and sun during daylight hours and yet be safe from roaming dogs or foxes would be ideal. There are lots of different style coops and enclosures to fit the needs and situations of anyone.
In the coop, you will need roosts for sleeping and nest boxes for laying eggs in. Hens like to lay eggs in enclosed spaces about 1 cubic foot or so. You can buy nest boxes pre-made or you can make your own. For a very small flock, a couple covered cat litter boxes or milk crates work well. Plan on about 1 nest box per 6 hens.
Another consideration before deciding to raising chickens for eggs would be to check with your town and make sure that they are legal to raise in your location.
Feed would be the next consideration – for optimal health, laying hens need a 16% protein laying diet. Most commercial feeds labeled for “layers” will provide the right balance and amounts of nutrients for your laying flock. Some people choose to avoid feed made with GMO corn and soy and purchase more expensive certified GMO-free or certified organic feed for their birds.
Strong egg shells are dependent on the right balance and amount of minerals, especially calcium. If your hens have access to the yard and outdoors they should be able to forage for enough calcium and minerals as insects and greens are both good sources. If your hens are confined, you should provide them with oyster shell as a mineral supplement. Also, granite grit would be necessary for confined hens as birds need little bits of gravel in their gizzards for proper digestion.
Many people don’t realize that there is a season for eggs! Egg season is January through July. Hens are laying eggs with having chicks in mind, and naturally are not very inclined to be caring for chicks in the dead of winter. When daylight hours start to decrease, most hens realize that winter is coming soon, and they start to lay less and less eggs.
In the fall, chickens moult their old summer feathers and grow in new thick winter feathers. Feather growing takes up nutrients and energy and contributes to a decrease in egg-laying.
Some people keep their hens indoors and use artificial lighting to mimic long daylight hours. This practice keeps the hens laying eggs all year long. But many people prefer to allow their hens to go through the natural yearly cycle. Egg laying tends to naturally pick up again soon after the winter solstice (December 21st). Hens recognize that daylight hours are increasing again, heralding in spring, and all of the sudden you realize you have tons of eggs piling up in your fridge!
I start saving eggs in October so I have some available all winter. Fresh eggs can last a long time in the fridge. When a hen lays an egg, there is a clear coating over the outside of the shell, called the ‘bloom.’ This bloom seals the egg and helps keep bacteria from penetrating the shell. When you wash your eggs, you wash off this bloom, and the eggs won’t last as long. Some eggs get dirty and simply have to be washed, but I usually don’t wash my eggs unless I have to. Keeping your nest boxes nice and clean and full of clean and dry straw or pine shavings will lead to clean eggs.
When you do wash your eggs, be aware that the shell is rather porous. Always wash them in clean water, and use water that is warmer in temperature than the temperature of the egg.
Store your eggs in cartons or in an egg basket or skelter. Don’t keep eggs in sealed containers – they need to breathe! Storing them standing upright as they sit in an egg carton will keep the yolk centered.
If you are worried that your eggs may be old – use a float test! Simply fill a bowl with water, and careful set the eggs into the water. Fresh eggs will sink to the bottom. As eggs age, they get more air in them and so they float. An old egg will pop up and float high on the surface of the water.
Raising your flock of laying hens in a backyard, homestead, or small farm environment will produce very high quality eggs. Your eggs will also have health benefits and higher levels of nutrients than the factory-style commercial eggs you find in grocery stores.
You’ll find that your eggs taste different from the eggs at the grocery store. Your own eggs will be fresher, and they’ll have bright orange-yellow yolks if your hens have access to grass. Eggs from chickens raised in yards and pastures have been proven to have higher levels of Omega 3’s in them, as well as more balanced cholesterol and fat, more antioxidants, and higher quality DHEA and protein.
Maybe you will enjoy raising chickens for egg so much that you’ll find you want to get more hens and start selling eggs. Regulations are usually easy to follow for legally selling your eggs to the public. Check with your particular state and farm extension agency. Usually regulations will include washing your eggs properly, grading your eggs, dating them, and fully labeling your carton. You may consider getting an insurance policy, as you would for selling any food item to the public.
Eggs from small local sources are in high demand. Fresh, local eggs sell out fast at Farmer’s Markets and Health Food Stores. Many people successfully sell eggs with an honor-system stand in front of their house. Certified Organic and humanely raised eggs are in very high demand. Be careful with your pricing though. As with any business endeavor, work out your cost for producing the eggs first. Then think about the time you spent and come up with an appropriate price. You will find that it is gong to be more than the price of eggs sold at the grocery store. Many customers understand the difference. But it will be up to you to educate customers about the difference in production style between your eggs and the eggs from a factory of battery raised hens.
You do not need a rooster to get eggs! Hens will lay eggs regularly without a rooster present. Roosters can be a useful and nice part of the chicken raising experience, but if you have close neighbors or your town regulations prohibit roosters, you can still enjoy having hens and get plenty of eggs!
And chickens aren’t the only type of poultry that lay eggs! All bird eggs raised under the same conditions taste very similar. Ducks lay wonderful eggs that have slightly creamier yolks. Ducks eggs make baked goods rise higher and can often be enjoyed by people who are allergic to chicken eggs. Quail eggs are also a lot of fun – they are tiny and often speckled. Nothing is cuter than tiny, hard-boiled or fried quail eggs. Both quail and duck eggs are in high demand by chefs and gourmet food stores and foodies at Farmer’s Markets.